The U.S. Memorial Holocaust Museum

The United States Memorial Holocaust Museum (USMHM) is America’s official memorial to the Holocaust. It is located in Washington, D.C. and was opened in 1993.

My daughter and I visited the USMHM last week; this was my second visit and her first. We both moved quietly through the three main floors of the permanent exhibit at our own pace, overwhelmed by the cruelty documented, the massive loss of life, and the obvious bravery of so many people.

Displays at the USMHM include photographs, video loops, voice recordings, and letters to name a few. Short films are included on each floor as well. Video loops including graphic footage such as medical experimentation on Jews or executions are placed behind barriers so people have the option to watch or not. There is a room filled with thousands of shoes collected from Jewish people after they were gassed. Another display shows large bags filled with hair shaved from the heads of Jewish prisoners to be sold and used to make fabric and textile products.

Every visitor receives an identification card as upon entering the permanent exhibit.

The permanent exhibition at the USMHM occupies the top three floors of the museum. Visitors are given identification cards as they enter industrial elevators that take them to the fourth floor. Each ID card tells the story of a victim or survivor of the holocaust.

The fourth floor focuses on the Nazi rise to power (1933-1939) and explores how such efficient and organized mass murder could have happened.

Visitors then move to the third floor which is centered on Germany’s evolutionary shift from persecuting Jews to mass murder, or what they called the “Final Solution.” Concentration camps, ghettos, dehumanizing treatment, forced labor as well as a look at the various groups persecuted by the Nazis are all topics explored on this level which encompasses the years 1940-1945.

Moving down to the second floor, visitors learn about the liberation of concentration camps by Allied forces, the aftermath of the Holocaust and resistance/rescue efforts that were made. The topic of bystanders is addressed here, too. Testimony is one of two films shown on this floor, and in it, survivors and rescuers share their stories.

Remember the Children, Daniel’s Story is an exhibit located on the first floor. It is geared towards elementary and middle school students and is intended to explain the Holocaust to children.

Two new things I learned about on my trip to the USMHM:

  • I learned why the U.S. didn’t bomb the gas chambers at Auschwitz (1944-1945) despite being begged to by Jewish leaders in America. Up to 10,000 people were being killed a day in Auschwitz gas chambers alone and it seems like bombing them would have been effective in reducing the number of deaths. The War Department responded to these requests by saying they weren’t in the business of rescue missions. They didn’t want to divert any resources away from war efforts and felt that a swift end to the war would be the most effect solution.

 

  • Jewish refugees looking out of a porthole while docked in Havana, Cuba.

    The MS St. Louis was a German ship carrying 937 German Jewish refugees hoping to escape Nazi persecution in 1939. They first arrived in Cuba where they were denied entry, though passengers did have visas. Next they went Florida where they were denied entry as well. Coast Guard cutters escorted them along the U.S. coast to ensure that they did not enter illegally as the ship made its way toward Canada. Two days before arriving at Nova Scotia, Canada, they were denied entry there as well. Eventually they made their way back to Europe where the captain, a non Jewish German, refused to return the ship to Germany until all passengers had been promised entry to some other country. The UK took 288, France allowed 224 passengers in, Belgium accepted 214 and 181 were accepted by the Netherlands. It is estimated that over one quarter of these passengers died in concentration camps.

Planning your visit:

  • Free passes are required for the permanent exhibit from March-August. They have times printed on them which helps regulate the flow of traffic. You can get your pass at the museum or ahead of time.
  • The permanent exhibit is recommended for ages 11 and up. You really shouldn’t bring small children here as it is a very solemn environment.
  • Plan on going through a metal detector. The USMHM has been the target of a planned attack and a fatal shooting so security is tight.
  • The museum is open everyday except Yom Kippur and Christmas Day.
  • Plan on staying for at least  2-3 hours.
  • Before you go, try to read Night by Elie Wiesel. This memoir tells of his and his father’s experiences inside Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. What makes this book exceptionally powerful is that Wiesel recounts not only what he saw, but how it made him feel.

“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in the camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams into dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I’m condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”

-Elie Wiesel, Night

17 thoughts on “The U.S. Memorial Holocaust Museum

  1. I really wanted to go to this museum when I was in Washington a few years ago but didn’t as my friend wasn’t interested. How I wish I had gone now as I heard it was moving and most informative. Thanks for sharing it with us and hopefully one day I will get back and go myself.

    • Yes, it really is wonderful. A lot of people are worried about visiting because they think it is a “downer” or too sad, but it really is a wonderful museum. Hopefully you’ll make it back! 🙂

  2. Thank you for sharing your experience with this. I haven’t been, and have only been to DC a couple of times many years ago, but if I get there again I would like to go. I’ve read Night (and Dawn) and many, many books about the Holocaust. I’m very sensitive and of course it is disturbing, but if people don’t know what happened, they won’t understand how important it is to prevent anything like this from ever happening again.

    • The museum is designed so that visitors can take in as much or as little information as they would like. I think this is a very nice feature of the museum because people do have different comfort levels.

  3. Sigh. My heart always feels so heavy when discussing this horrendous historical event. I have been there and the silence is palpable. My brother-in-law was the head librarian there for many years after working at the Library of Congress. He has since changed locations but is still working for the federal system. The things he learned will never be erased from his mind!

    • That’s amazing that your brother-in-law was head librarian there…wow! Amazing. And what a responsibility, too. It’s so important to record every artifact and everyone’s history as this group of people gets older and older and dwindles in size.

  4. that’s a pretty sobering museum of man’s inhumanity to man… I’ve only been once in July 2008 – I was silent the entire time…I read Night a few years ago so I could help my son through it… it’s difficult to believe that anything like the Holocaust could have ever occurred – but when I look around I see history repeating itself – Syria, Rwanda, Sudan…. sad

    • It seems like most high school students have to read Night which I think is excellent. My own kids did and were very touched by the book. It is an unusual museum experience because it is so silent inside. It is a very reverent, solemn place. History repeating itself? So sad and horrific.

  5. I have never been, but I made sure and make sure that my children and grandchildren know about the holocaust and have seen movies like Schindler’s List and Anne Frank. It is important that our children our still educated and reminded that this type of thing did happen and can happen so that perhaps some day it won’t happen.

  6. Thank you for another great post. This is yet another place I want to visit on our next trip to D.C. It sounds like an intense experience. Learning about the Holocaust as a student left the biggest imprint on me. It haunted me for the longest time when I was younger. I was obsessed and heartsick. I definitely want to visit this museum. Thanks again!!

  7. This was such a great way to learn more about the USMHM. I’ve been to Yad Vashem, and it was very difficult to visit, but very powerful at the same time. I’d like to visit this museum as well. I like how you highlighted what you learned there and the recommendation to read “Night”. Great post!

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